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Lockheed prepares to usher F-16 through 12,000h service life

The US Air Force has all but scrapped a plan to install advanced radars on its Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, but Lockheed is pressing forward with plans to outfit other nations’ aircraft with the capability in hopes the US will eventually purchase the capability.

USAF officials scrapped a comprehensive upgrade effort for F-16 Block 40 and 50 aircraft called the combat avionics programmed extension suite (CAPES) in its current fiscal year budget but preserved money over five years to replace the aircraft mission and display computers.

“Those are the foundational systems that need to be installed to support an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar upgrade in the future,” Rod McLean, vice president of Lockheed’s F-16/F-22 integrated fighter group, tells Flightglobal.

CAPES was intended to be a joint programme between the USAF and Taiwan, which is now performing the upgrades unilaterally. The USAF has plans to keep the F-16 technologically relevant until the Lockheed F-35 came online beginning in 2016. Given a choice, air force officials chose to follow an incremental upgrade path rather than go all in on an AESA upgrade for the F-16 in the near term, McLean says.

“Even though the US Air Force pulled their involvement, there still is a baseline capability that we will install in the Tawain air force F-16s that will be applications to the US Air Force in the future,” he says.

Taiwan will become the launch customer for the F-16V configuration, which involves mission computer upgrades, structural reinforcements and the integration of an AESA radar, in this case the Northrop Grumman APG-83 scalable agile-beam radar (SABR).

“We are starting to see a number of customers beginning to line up behind that configuration,” McLean says. “We should hear some news by the end of the year for additional upgrade contracts to V configuration.”

The F-16 needs more than an avionics upgrade to fly for much longer than their originally intended 8,000h service life. Many nations that fly the aircraft, including the USAF, are considering pushing them to at least 10,000h if not 12,000h.

“It’s quite realisable that we can get up to 12,000hr on the airplanes,” McLean says. “The point is, they will continue to be the backbone of the US Air Force fleet for a number of years until the F-35 comes online. Already, they are the backbone of many international coalition partners’ fleets as they are heavily engaged in the fights around the globe.”

Lockheed is putting an F-16 through stress and fatigue testing in order to design a service life extension retrofit kit that would allow Block 40 and 50s to fly as many as 12,000h. That test programme should be complete in 2015.

The process involves putting the airframe through the equivalent stress of three 8,000h service lives. The test vehicle has already undergone 16,000h of tests, he says.

“As the test progressed, we saw some occurrences and made some repairs,” McLean says. “We updated our models to reflect that and then identify a kit, a set of parts and components or structure members that we’ll need to go off and procure and install on the airplane to take it to 10,000 or 12,000 hours.”

Initial assessments indicate “nothing significant” like wholesale bulkhead or wing replacement is needed to extend an F-16s service life, McLean says. Bulkhead repairs will be required, as was the case with a portion of the USAF’s two-seated F-16 fleet. A crack was found in the canopy sill longeron of several of those aircraft until Lockheed devised and implemented a permanent repair for those aircraft.

Lockheed is still building about 1 new F-16s per month at its Fort Worth, Texas, manufacturing facility on a line with orders that will sustain it through 2017, McLean says. He hopes to have orders for another new-build customer ‑ either a Middle East or South American nation – before the end of the year, the deadline to avoid costly production gaps.

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